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Chapter 26

Sheridan reached White House on March 19, after having made a campaign seldom equaled in activity, through a difficult country and during incessant rains. He had whipped the enemy at all points, captured 17 pieces of artillery and 1600 prisoners, and destroyed 56 canal-locks, 5 aqueducts, 23 railroad bridges, 40 canal and road bridges, together with 40 miles of railroad, numerous warehouses and factories, and vast quantities of military supplies.

On March 20 Stoneman advanced toward east Tennessee, and on the same day Canby moved his forces against Mobile. Sherman had whipped all the troops opposed to him in his march through the Carolinas, and destroyed communications in all directions. He and Schofield met with their armies at Goldsboroa, North Carolina, on the 23d of March, and about all the points on the Atlantic coast were now in our possession.

When Sheridan started to join Grant, Hancock had been put in command of the Middle Military Division. The various armies were all working successfully with [401] [402] a common purpose in view, and under one watchful, guiding mind the web was being woven closer and closer about the Confederate capital, and the cause of secession was every day drawing nearer to its doom.

General Grant's only anxiety now was to prevent the escape of the enemy from Richmond before he could be struck a crushing blow. No campaign in force could be made at this time by moving around to the west of Lee's army and heading it off in that direction, for the reason that the rainy season still continued, and rendered the roads difficult for infantry and impassable for wagons and artillery, and because Sheridan's cavalry had not yet joined our army in front of Petersburg. Every possible precaution was taken meanwhile to prevent Lee from withdrawing his army. Scouts and spies were more active than ever before; about 30,000 men were kept virtually on the picket-line, and all the troops were equipped and supplied, ready to make a forced march at a moment's notice in case Lee should be found moving. It was now ascertained that Sheridan could start from White House on March 25 to join the Army of the Potomac, and on the 24th orders were issued for a general movement of the armies operating against Petersburg and Richmond, to begin on the night of the 28th, for the purpose of marching around Lee's right, breaking up his last remaining railroads, the Danville and the South Side, and giving, if possible, the final blow to the Confederacy.

On March 20 General Grant had telegraphed the President: “Can you not visit City Point for a day or two? I would like very much to see you, and I think the rest would do you good.” This invitation was promptly accepted, and on the 24th word came that he was on his way up the James aboard the River Queen. About nine o'clock that evening the steamer approached [403] the wharf, and General Grant, with those of us who were with him at the moment, including Robert Lincoln, went down to the landing and met the President, Mrs. Lincoln, their youngest son, “Tad,” and several ladies who had come from Washington with the Presidential party. The meeting was very cordial. It lasted but a short time, however, as Mr. Lincoln and his family were evidently fatigued by the trip, and it was thought that they might want to retire at an early hour. His steamer was escorted by a naval vessel named the Bat, commanded by Captain John S. Barnes, an accomplished officer of the navy.

Grant, with his usual foresight, had predicted that Lee would make a determined assault at some point on our lines in an endeavor to throw our troops into confusion, and then make his escape before our men could recover from their consternation and be prepared to follow him closely. As early as February 22 the general-in-chief sent a very characteristic despatch to Parke, who was temporarily in command of the Army of the Potomac during Meade's absence: “As there is a possibility of an attack from the enemy at any time, and especially an attempt to break your center, extra vigilance should be kept up both by the pickets and the troops on the line. Let commanders understand that no time is to be lost awaiting orders, if an attack is made, in bringing all their resources to the point of danger. With proper alacrity in this respect, I would have no objection to seeing the enemy get through.”

On the evening of the 24th of March, General Meade came to headquarters to meet Mrs. Meade, who had arrived by steamer at City Point, and General Grant suggested to him that he had better remain over till the next day, which he did. General Ord also stayed at headquarters that night. [404]

About six o'clock the next morning, March 25, the camp was awakened and was soon all astir by reason of a message from the Petersburg front saying that the enemy had broken through our lines near Fort Stedman and was making a heavy attack. Soon after it was found that the telegraph-line had been broken, and as messages would now have to come most of the distance by couriers, there was increased anxiety as to the movement. General Grant saw at once that his prediction of a month before had been fulfilled, but believed that the cautions given would be observed, so that he did not experience much apprehension. We had wakened him the moment the announcement came by rapping upon the door of the room occupied by him and Mrs. Grant; and in reply to his questions the despatch was read loud enough for him to hear it without opening the door. He dressed at once, and as this was a process which never occupied many minutes, he was soon out in front of his quarters, where he was met by Meade and others. Meade was greatly nettled by the fact that he was absent from his command at such a time, and was pacing up and down with great strides, and dictating orders to his chief of staff, General Webb, who was with him, in tones which showed very forcibly the intensity of his feelings. The President, who was aboard his boat anchored out in the river, soon heard of the attack, and he was kept informed of the events which were taking place by his son Robert, who carried the news to him.

General Grant, with his usual aggressiveness, telegraphed to the Army of the James: “This may be a signal for leaving. Be ready to take advantage of it.” It was nearly two hours before any very definite information could be obtained, but the news began to be favorable, and by half-past 8 o'clock it was learned [405] that our whole line had been recaptured, many prisoners taken, and that everything was again quiet. Mr. Lincoln now sent a telegram to the Secretary of War, winding up with the words: “Robert just now tells me there was a little rumpus up the line this morning, ending about where it began.” Generals Meade and Ord returned as soon as they could to their respective commands, and took vigorous measures against the enemy.

It seems that the Richmond authorities had come to the conclusion that their position was no longer tenable, and that their army must retreat as soon as possible. A successful attack on our right, it was hoped, would throw our troops into confusion, and while we were maturing plans for the recapture of the lost portion of our lines, and drawing in troops from our left for this purpose, Lee would find an opportunity to make a forced march with his army toward the Carolinas.

This attack was one of the most dramatic events of the siege of Petersburg. It was commanded by General J. B. Gordon. There had been placed at his disposal for the purpose about one half of Lee's entire army. For some time men had been leaving the ranks of the enemy and making their way to us through the lines at night. The arms which they brought in were purchased from them at a fair price, and everything possible was done to encourage these desertions. The attacking party, knowing of this practice, took advantage of it, and succeeded in having his skirmishers gain an entrance to our lines in the guise of deserters, and suddenly make prisoners of our pickets. Just before dawn our trench guards were overpowered, our main line was broken between two of our batteries, and Fort Stedman, after a brief but gallant resistance, was captured, and its guns turned against our own troops. Several more batteries to the right and left were soon [406] taken, and as friends could not be distinguished from foes, owing to the darkness, it was for a time difficult for our troops to use artillery. Further assaults, however, were handsomely repulsed; as soon as there was sufficient light a heavy artillery fire was concentrated on the enemy, and at a quarter to eight o'clock Hartranft advanced against Fort Stedman, and recaptured it with comparatively small loss.

The movement was well planned, and carried out with skill and boldness, but it proved a signal failure. It was a desperate military gamble, with very few chances of winning. It was a curious coincidence that on the same day that Lee was preparing for his assault on our right, Grant was writing his orders for a general movement of the Union armies against the enemy's right.

General Grant proposed to the President that forenoon that he should accompany him on a trip to the Petersburg front. The invitation was promptly accepted, and several hours were spent in visiting the troops, who cheered the President enthusiastically. He was greatly interested in looking at the prisoners who had been captured that morning; and while at Meade's headquarters, about two o'clock, sent a despatch to Stanton, saying: “. . I have nothing to add to what General Meade reports, except that I have seen the prisoners myself, and they look like there might be the number he states-1600.” The President carried a map with him, which he took out of his pocket and examined several times. He had the exact location of the troops marked on it, and he exhibited a singularly accurate knowledge of the various positions.

Upon the return to headquarters at City Point, he sat for a while by the camp-fire; and as the smoke curled about his head during certain shiftings of the wind, and [407] he brushed it away from time to time by waving his right hand in front of his face, he entertained the general-in-chief and several members of the staff by talking in a most interesting manner about public affairs, and illustrating the subjects mentioned with his incomparable anecdotes. At first his manner was grave and his language much more serious than usual. He spoke of the appalling difficulties encountered by the administration, the losses in the field, the perplexing financial problems, and the foreign complications; but said they had all been overcome by the unswerving patriotism of the people, the devotion of the loyal North, and the superb fighting qualities of the troops. After a while he spoke in a more cheerful vein, and said: “England will live to regret her inimical attitude toward us. After the collapse of the rebellion John Bull will find that he has injured himself much more seriously than us. His action reminds me of a barber in Sangamon County in my State. He had just gone to bed when a stranger came along and said he must be shaved; that he had a four days beard on his face, and was going to take a girl to a ball, and that beard must come off. Well, the barber got up reluctantly and dressed, and seated the man in a chair with a back so low that every time he bore down on him he came near dislocating his victim's neck. He began by lathering his face, including his nose, eyes, and ears, stropped his razor on his boot, and then made a drive at the man's countenance as if he had practised mowing in a stubble-field. He cut a bold swath across the right cheek, carrying away the beard, a pimple, and two warts. The man in the chair ventured to remark: ‘You appear to make everything level as you go.’ ‘Yes,’ said the barber; ‘and if this handle don't break, I guess I'll get away with most of what's there.’ The man's cheeks were so hollow that the barber [408] could n't get down into the valleys with the razor, and the ingenious idea occurred to him to stick his finger in the man's mouth and press out the cheeks. Finally he cut clear through the cheek and into his own finger. He pulled the finger out of the man's mouth, snapped the blood off it, glared at him, and cried: ‘There, you lantern-jawed cuss, you've made me cut my finger! ’ And so England will discover that she has got the South into a pretty bad scrape by trying to administer to her, and in the end she will find that she has only cut her own finger.”

After the laugh which followed this story had exhausted itself, General Grant asked: “Mr. President, did you at any time doubt the final success of the cause t” “Never for a moment,” was the prompt and emphatic reply, as Mr. Lincoln leaned forward in his camp-chair and enforced his words by a vigorous gesture of his right hand. “Mr. Seward, when he visited me last summer, gave a very interesting account of the complications and embarrassments arising from the Mason and Slidell affair, when those commissioners were captured on board the English vessel Trent,” remarked General Grant. “Yes,” said the President; “Seward studied up all the works ever written on international law, and came to cabinet meetings loaded to the muzzle with the subject. We gave due consideration to the case, but at that critical period of the war it was soon decided to deliver up the prisoners. It was a pretty bitter pill to swallow, but I contented myself with believing that England's triumph in the matter would be short-lived, and that after ending our war successfully we would be so powerful that we could call her to account for all the embarrassments she had inflicted upon us. I felt a good deal like the sick man in Illinois who was told he probably had n't many days longer to live, [409] and he ought to make his peace with any enemies he might have. He said the man he hated worst of all was a fellow named Brown, in the next village, and he guessed he had better begin on him. So Brown was sent for, and when he came the sick man began to say, in a voice as meek as Moses's, that he wanted to die at peace with all his fellow-creatures, and he hoped he and Brown could now shake hands and bury all their enmity. The scene was becoming altogether too pathetic for Brown, who had to get out his handkerchief and wipe the gathering tears from his eyes. It was n't long before he melted, and gave his hand to his neighbor, and they had a regular love-feast of forgiveness. After a parting that would have softened the heart of a grindstone, Brown had about reached the room door when the sick man rose up on his elbow and called out to him: ‘But see here, Brown; if I should happen to get well, mind, that old grudge stands.’ So I thought that if this nation should happen to get well we might want that old grudge against England to stand.”

It was a singular sequel to this conversation that the officer to whom he was then speaking became Mr. Lincoln's successor in the Presidential chair, and carried out this determination by securing a settlement of the account known in history as the “Alabama claims,” and the payment from England of fifteen and a half millions of dollars as compensation for damages inflicted upon our commerce.

The President now went aboard his boat to spend the night. The next morning he wandered into the tent of the headquarters telegraph operator, where several of us were sitting. He pulled out of his pocket a telegram which he had received from the Secretary of War, and his face assumed a broad smile as he said: “Well, the serious Stanton is actually becoming facetious. Just [410] listen to what he says in his despatch: “Your telegram and Parke's report of the scrimmage this morning are received. The rebel rooster looks a little the worse, as he could not hold the fence. We have nothing new here. Now you are away, everything is quiet and the tormentors vanished. I hope you will remember General Harrison's advice to his men at Tippecanoe, that they can “see as well a little farther off.”””

Three tiny kittens were crawling about the tent at the time. The mother had died, and the little wanderers were expressing their grief by mewing piteously. Mr. Lincoln picked them up, took them on his lap, stroked their soft fur, and murmured: “Poor little creatures, don't cry; you'll be taken good care of,” and turning to Bowers, said: “Colonel, I hope you will see that these poor little motherless waifs are given plenty of milk and treated kindly.” Bowers replied: “I will see, Mr. President, that they are taken in charge by the cook of our mess, and are well cared for.” Several times during his stay Mr. Lincoln was found fondling these kittens. He would wipe their eyes tenderly with his handkerchief, stroke their smooth coats, and listen to them purring their gratitude to him. It was a curious sight at an army headquarters, upon the eve of a great military crisis in the nation's history, to see the hand which had affixed the signature to the Emancipation Proclamation, and had signed the commissions of all the heroic men who served the cause of the Union, from the general-in-chief to the lowest lieutenant, tenderly caressing three stray kittens. It well illustrated the kindness of the man's disposition, and showed the childlike simplicity which was mingled with the grandeur of his nature.

General Grant had sent word to Sheridan, whose troops were now crossing the James, to come in person [411] to headquarters, and early on the morning of March 26 he arrived. Rawlins and several other officers were in front of our quarters at the time, and upon seeing Sheridan, who had been separated from us for so long a time, we hurried forward to greet him. Rawlins, in his enthusiasm, seized both of Sheridan's hands in his own, wrung them vigorously, and then went to patting him on the back. Sheridan returned all the greetings warmly, and Rawlins now informed him that General Grant had made up his mind to send the cavalry through to join Sherman, destroying all communications as they went. Sheridan looked greatly annoyed at this information, and Rawlins agreed with him that such a move ought not to be made. Sheridan was told that the general-in-chief was awaiting him in his quarters, and went in and had a long talk. The general showed him the written instructions which he had prepared, and to which Rawlins had just referred. They directed him to proceed with his cavalry around Lee's right, and then to move independently under other instructions. Sheridan felt convinced, from what was said verbally, that he was expected to cut loose and move down to Sherman's army. Some of the staff now entered the room, and found Sheridan arguing against the policy of such a move. When he rose up to go, the general followed him out and had a few words of private conversation. We learned afterward that he told Sheridan that the part of the instructions to which he objected was merely a blind; that he intended to end the contest at once where we were, and that Sheridan was to operate against Lee's right, and be in at the death. He said: “In case the operations of the cavalry should not be an entire success, the people would take it for granted that a definite movement which they had been expecting had been a complete failure, and they, would be greatly discouraged. [412] So I wanted the impression to prevail that a different movement had been contemplated. I really have no intention of sending you to Sherman.” This was the general's little secret, which he had kept from all of the staff, and revealed to the cavalry commander Sheridan only at the last moment. Sheridan was made happy by this conversation, and immediately told it to Rawlins, who was as much delighted as Sheridan himself.

It was decided that upon this day Mr. Lincoln would review a portion of the Army of the James on the north side of the James River, and Sheridan was invited to join the party from headquarters who were to accompany the President. The boat started from City Point at eleven o'clock.

At breakfast General Grant said to me: “I shall accompany the President, who is to ride ‘ Cincinnati,’ as he seems to have taken a fancy to him. I wish you would take Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Grant to the reviewing-ground in our headquarters ambulance.” I expressed my pleasure at being selected for so pleasant a mission, and arranged to have the ambulance and two good horses put aboard the headquarters boat, which was to carry the party up the river. Captain Barnes, who commanded the vessel which had escorted the President's steamer, was to be one of the party, and I loaned him my horse. This was a favor which was usually accorded with some reluctance to naval officers when they came ashore; for these men of the ocean at times tried to board the animal on the starboard side, and often rolled in the saddle as if there was a heavy sea on; and if the horse, in his anxiety to rid himself of a sea-monster, tried to scrape his rider off by rubbing against a tree, the officer attributed the unseaman-like conduct of the animal entirely to the fact that his steering-gear [413] had become unshipped. A naval hero not long before had borrowed a horse ashore, and attempted to make his seat firmer on deck by grappling the animal's beam-ends with his spurs, which caused the horse to run a little too free before the wind; and when the officer could not succeed in making him shorten sail by hauling in on the reins, he took out his jack-knife and dug it in the animal's flanks, swearing that if he could not bring the craft to in any other way he would scuttle it. Navy officers were about as reluctant to lend their boats to army people, for fear they would knock holes in the bottom when jumping in, break the oars in catching crabs, and stave in the bows through an excess of modesty which manifested itself in a reluctance to give the command, “Way enough!” in time when approaching a wharf.

The President was in a more gloomy mood than usual on the trip up the James. He spoke with much seriousness about the situation, and did not attempt to tell a single anecdote. As the boat passed the point where Sheridan's cavalry was crossing the river on the pontoon-bridge, he manifested considerable interest in watching the troopers, and addressed a number of questions to their commander. When the boat reached the landing on the north side of the river, I helped the two distinguished ladies who had been intrusted to my care into the ambulance, and started for the reviewing-ground, about two miles distant. The horsemen got the start of us and made good time; but as the road was swampy, and part of it corduroyed with the trunks of small trees, without much reference to their relative size or regularity of position, the ambulance could make but slow progress. Some additional springs had been put under it, and cross-seats arranged so as to make it ride more easily than the ordinary army ambulance; but the improved [414] springs only served to toss the occupants higher in the air when the wheels struck a particularly aggravating obstacle. Mrs. Lincoln, finding we were losing time, and fearing we would miss part of the review, expressed a wish to move faster, and I reluctantly gave the order to the driver. We were still on a corduroyed portion of the road, and when the horses trotted the mud flew in all directions, and a sudden jolt lifted the party clear off the seats, jammed the ladies' hats against the top of the wagon, and bumped their heads as well. Mrs. Lincoln now insisted on getting out and walking; but as the mud was nearly hub-deep, Mrs. Grant and I persuaded her that we had better stick to the wagon as our only ark of refuge. Finally we reached our destination, but it was some minutes after the review had begun. Mrs. Ord, and the wives of several of the officers who had come up from Fort Monroe for the purpose, appeared on horseback as a mounted escort to Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Grant. This added a special charm to the scene, and the review passed off with peculiar brilliancy. Mrs. Grant enjoyed the day with great zest, but Mrs. Lincoln had suffered so much from the fatigue and annoyances of her overland trip that she was not in a mood to derive much pleasure from the occasion. I made up my mind that ambulances, viewed as vehicles for driving distinguished ladies to military reviews, were not a stupendous success, and that thereafter they had better be confined to their legitimate uses of transporting the wounded and attending funerals.

Upon the return trip on the boat, the President seemed to recover his spirits. Perhaps the manifestation of strength on the part of the splendid Army of the James which he had witnessed at the review had served to cheer him up. He told one excellent story on the way [415] back. In speaking of a prominent general, and the failure of the numerous attempts on the President's part to make the officer's services useful to the country, and the necessity finally of relieving him from all command, he said: “I was not more successful than the blacksmith in our town, in my boyhood days, when he tried to put to a useful purpose a big piece of wrought-iron that was in the shop. He heated it, put it on the anvil, and said: ‘ I'm going to make a sledge-hammer out of you.’ After a while he stopped hammering it, looked at it, and remarked: ‘Guess I've drawed you out a little too fine for a sledge-hammer; reckon I'd better make a clevis of you.’ He stuck it in the fire, blew the bellows, got up a good heat, then began shaping the iron again on the anvil. Pretty soon he stopped, sized it up with his eye, and said: ‘Guess I've drawed you out too thin for a clevis; suppose I better make a clevis-bolt of you.’ He put it in the fire, bore down still harder on the bellows, drew out the iron, and went to work at it once more on the anvil. In a few minutes he stopped, took a look, and exclaimed: ‘Well, now I've got you down a leetle too thin even to make a clevis-bolt out of you.’ Then he rammed it in the fire again, threw his whole weight on the bellows, got up a white heat on the iron, jerked it out, carried it in the tongs to the water-barrel, held it over the barrel, and cried: ‘I've tried to make a sledge-hammer of you, and failed; I've tried to make a clevis of you, and failed; I've tried to make a clevis-bolt of you, and failed; now, darn you, I'm going to make a fizzle of you ’ ; and with that he soused it in the water and let it fizz.”

It was nearly dark when the party returned to City Point. After dinner the band was brought down to the steamboat, and a dance was improvised. Several ladies were aboard, and they and the officers danced till midnight. [416] Neither the President nor General Grant joined, even in a square dance, but sat in the after part of the boat conversing. Sheridan stayed overnight at City Point, and started early in the morning for the cavalry headquarters on the Petersburg front.

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